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While summer technically doesn't end for another month or so, the summer movie season tends to wrap up around the end of July, leaving August for the sorts of films that tend to have trouble finding a home. Alpha is just such a film, and while it's understandable why this stray might be overlooked, those that do take the time to get to know it may make a friend for life.
Alpha takes place 20,000 years ago, somewhere on the European continent. Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Nightcrawler of X-Men: Apocalypse) is the son of the chief of a clan of early humans who has earned the right to go on his first hunt. Once a year, his people travel a great distance to hunt a wild beast in order to stockpile enough food for the coming winter. Keda is eager to prove himself worthy of being the chief's son, but when his inexperience gets the better of him during the hunt, he finds himself seriously wounded, and left for dead by his people. He begins to attempt the dangerous journey home alone, but when he is set upon by wolves, and he seriously injures one of them in defending his life, Keda finds an unlikely companion that may greatly increase his chances of making it home.
The plot of Alpha is a simple one. It's a story of a boy and his dog, though technically the film certainly stands alone by purporting to be the first story of its kind. The story is simple, straightforward, and fairly predictable. However, there's an ultimate charm to the simplicity that works well. Much of the credit for that needs to be given to Kodi Smit-McPhee. For the majority of the film, he is the only human on the screen, so if the audience doesn't relate to him, the entire exercise is for naught. Luckily, it's a fairly easy connection to make. Keda is intelligent and capable, so it's believable that he might succeed, though the situation is stacked against him enough that it's far from certain that he will.
If there's a second star of Alpha, it's the environment. It is a visually stunning movie. Since dialogue is kept to a minimum, and entirely subtitled, much of the story is told visually. The wide open spaces and long stretching vistas are a character in the film, as the ultimate villain that needs to be overcome is mother nature herself. Some of these backdrops are green screen, and some of those are obviously green screen, but even those are so impressive as effects that it's easy to give them a pass.
If there's a major complaint to be had with Alpha, I found the pacing and story to be a bit unbalanced. Much of the first act is dedicated to backstory for Keda, meeting his family, his tribe, and watching him learn to be a hunter. While there is absolutely important information in these scenes, the film's brief, sub-100-minute runtime, means that barely over half of it is actually given over to Keda and Alpha. Considering much of these early scenes involve characters who aren't important when we meet them, and don't become important later, it feels like this could have been trimmed to give more time to the main story. Specifically, the building of the early relationship between the two main characters feels unnaturally brief. Likewise, a third-act confrontation that could have been something quite stunning to watch is over almost before it begins.
However, the biggest problem Alpha may have is in finding the right audience. While calling the story a "boy and his dog" movie may make it sound like a film for the whole family, it's really not. While not overly bloody or violent, there is a lot of grim material to get through. It's a story of survival, after all. In addition, since all dialogue is handled with subtitles, young kids may have trouble simply following the story.
I found the subtitles to be a problem myself, not because I had a problem reading, but because I found them mostly unnecessary. Especially after Keda finds himself without another human to speak to, the words become superfluous. Everything Keda says is clear from context and tone, and removing the language could have helped the overall story, perhaps letting the audience relate a bit more to Alpha as well as Keda. The best parts of Alpha are when no words are spoken.
You don't have to love dogs to love Alpha, though I'm sure it helps. I'm not a dog person and even I wanted to find a four-legged friend to scratch behind the ears when the movie was over. While Alpha isn't the heartwarming story of a boy and his dog it may appear to be, it is a visually impressive and compelling adventure that many will surely enjoy.